For much of the 21st century, South Africa have been synonymous with world-class fast bowlers. Keshav Maharaj, though, has challenged that notion and has cast himself as one of the best spinners to have ever emerged from the country.
Prior to the Test series against Bangladesh, there wasn’t much chatter about Maharaj. South Africa were expected to play to their strengths. The hosts were missing Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen but looked to have enough of a fast-bowling battery to rattle the Tigers. The Kingsmead pitch, though, had different ideas, providing turn from early on in the game.
Still Maharaj wasn’t the story. In the first innings, it was Simon Harmer, playing his first Test since 2015, who got the ball to grip, turn and bounce. Bangladesh’s spinners weren’t as effective and only accounted for six South African batters. But it still looked as if the hosts would have to rely on their spinners to eke out a victory in the fourth innings.
Their prayers were answered by Maharaj – an unassuming spinner who doesn’t baulk at the sight of challenges and almost always seems to find a way. The left-arm spinner isn’t as flamboyant as some of the other tweakers in the sport. He doesn’t have too many variations and hasn’t run through batting units as regularly to feature in a conversation about the world’s premier spinners. But whenever South Africa have needed him to turn up, he has managed to do it – just like it happened against Bangladesh at Durban.
Throughout his career, Maharaj has acted as a foil for his more illustrious pace-bowling peers, with his role revolving around containing the batters and building pressure. A bowling record of 60 wickets at an average of 34.66 and an economy rate of 3.3 in South Africa is testament to it as well.
But on tough tours, Maharaj has been excellent for the Proteas. Across the board, he averages 29.92 in away Tests. In New Zealand, he averages 22.1 having taken 19 wickets. In Pakistan, he has bagged 10 wickets at an average of 31, whereas in Sri Lanka, he has picked up 16 scalps at an average of 24.37. When playing in England, he averages 30.35, having accumulated 17 wickets.
Quite often, South Africa have found themselves in a pickle in the fourth innings and have required one of their spinners to stand up. In the fourth essay, Maharaj averages 20.44 and has taken 36 wickets in 16 innings. In the third innings of matches, his average is a touch higher (31.58) but he has still mustered 41 wickets.
These numbers might not stand out from a global perspective. But Maharaj has rarely failed to perform the role his team has asked of him. It sounds simple but it isn’t. Barren bowling spells usually lead to hours of scrutiny, with those sessions frequently leading to murmurs about a bowler’s place in the side. So, for Maharaj to completely cast aside those thoughts and just do a job for his team, is commendable.
The seven-wicket haul in the second innings against Bangladesh also took Maharaj past Paul Adams in South Africa’s Test wicket-taking charts, making him the second-highest wicket-taker of all time among South African spin bowlers. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare when he actually accomplished that feat. That, however, is Maharaj in a nutshell – he won’t go seeking for attention and he won’t ask for credit to be given to him. Yet, when required, he will always be there.
As things stand, only five South African spinners have managed to breach the 100-wickets mark in Test cricket, with Maharaj’s average being the second-best. His strike rate, meanwhile, is the best among that group, indicating that he is as potent as any spinner to have represented the Proteas in Test cricket. There is one player ahead of him – Hugh Tayfield, an off-spinner operating largely in the 50s, who claimed 170 wickets at 25.91. Between them, he and Maharaj have claimed the five best innings analyses for South Africa by a spinner.
Among those, for Tayfield, is one of the greatest spells of all time, with fourth-innings figures of 9-113 sealing a 17-run win over an England line-up featuring Colin Cowdrey, Denis Compton and Peter May in 1957. Maharaj is surely on course to break his wicket-taking record, and if he does so, his case will be compelling.
Thus, there is enough to make a case that Maharaj is arguably the greatest spinner South Africa have ever produced in Test cricket. While his overall record doesn’t compare to what the Proteas’ pacers have produced over the years, it must be put into context. The kind of conditions spinners such as Maharaj have tackled and the role he has been asked to perform must be viewed in conjunction.
From those standpoints, there shouldn’t be any doubt about his place in South Africa’s cricketing folklore. Maharaj, though, won’t go around enquiring about it. Neither will he actively try to tell people what he has done is substantial. Deep down, though, both he and South Africa will know how crucial they are to each other’s success. And, of course, how Maharaj deserves a lot more recognition than he gets currently.